This post contains spoilers.
Over the weekend, I took in Spike Jonze’s fourth feature, Her, with my partner and a friend. Prior to our screening, I had a kiki with some girlfriends that I didn’t want to end. One of them saw Her over the break and was not fond of it. I had my doubts about a film where a glum divorcé (Joaquin Phoenix, as protagonist Theodore Twombly) who dictates outsourced love letters falls for the voice of his operating system (Scarlett Johansson, as Samantha) in the disorienting near future. It sounded interesting, but obvious. Of course people eroticize technologies they helped create. This followed a few besotted responses from some guy friends. I tried to wave away such tidy essentialisms as I settled in, reminding myself that glibly tweeting “More like ‘Her?'” is cute but cheap, especially since I don’t know if Gene Shalit is an Arrested Development fan.
Of course, it’s hard to bury certain things or worry that others’ interpretations distort your reception. Some of my friends avoid trailers for this very reason. As an inveterate spoiler, I often read commentary because I delight in other people’s words. Usually, I read criticism to test out suspicions I have about a text’s basic premise. For example, Molly Lambert discussed Jonze’s divorce to Sofia Coppola and made comparisons to sex work in her review. I drew these parallels in my mind when I saw the film’s trailer. I reflected on Lost in Translation and Where the Wild Things Are‘s thematic preoccupations with marital dissolution and divorce. I loved Wild Things for capturing the child logic of gameplay and the recklessness that comes with anger you’re too young to articulate. Also, James Gandolfini is excellent in it.
Translation‘s queasy political resemblance to Mickey Rooney’s yellowface performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is another post, as is Her‘s potential Orientalism in casting Shanghai as Los Angeles. But it was unfair to single out Coppola for using her chosen medium to dramatize the fallout of her first marriage. Coppola could be a more subtle filmmaker and her class politics are problematic. Anna Faris’ imitation of Cameron Diaz Kelly is alienating because Coppola and Johansson’s Charlotte damn her for being tacky. But it wasn’t much of a leap for me to imagine Jonze retreating from his divorce with a gang of monsters and a kid named Max Records. Giovanni Ribisi’s John is as much Coppola’s recollection of her ex-husband’s shaggy diffidence as Rooney Mara’s Catherine is Jonze’s rehearsal of his ex-wife’s withering chicness. Perhaps it’s no accident that Johansson stars in both films.
But I quickly abandoned casting Mara as Coppola’s avatar. For one, she gets two brief scenes of dialogue and several poignant, wordless montages. For another, I was more invested in the film’s thematic interest in gender, technology, and labor. Johansson replaced Samantha Morton in post-production. Morton’s presence haunts Her. I had difficulty not imagining her soft lilt mirroring or diverging from her successor’s velvet-lined performance. I kept wondering what it meant for Morton, who acted with Phoenix during production, to be removed by another actress’ voice. And what does it mean for the character to be named “Samantha,” just as Amy Adams shares a name with her character, a frustrated game designer and the protagonist’s best friend?
Last spring, I did an independent study on gender and labor with my adviser and a friend in my program. A term that recurred in our reading was “deskilling,” or the elimination of skilled labor following technological advancements that only require minor operation by unskilled workers. This concept obviously applies to power and human capital. It disproportionately affects women, who are perceived as too simple to grasp the intricacies of technology and too gentile to protest exploitation. Women are also assumed to prioritize marriage and motherhood. Their income is perceived as supplemental to their husbands’ earnings. Such sexist beliefs manifest in terms like “women’s wages.” Another word associated with women’s labor is “hyperemployment,” or second-shift labor aided by mobile technology. Women are always already working.
One of the books we read was Venus Green’s Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System (1880-1980). In this sweeping history, Green details white women’s entrance into the company’s work force as telephone operators, because it was believed that their voices soothed callers and that technology advanced enough to reduce untrained women’s labor to a series of simple, repetitive tasks. Green also discusses how white women formed coalitions against black female laborers during Bell’s integration, an unfortunate set of circumstances that illustrate feminism’s entrenchment in white female privilege and capitalism’s exploitation of worker anxiety for discipline and profit. Green ultimately argues that black women were the casualty of the company’s divestiture in the early 1980s, stating that “[m]anagers deliberately hired African American women into an occupation that not only paid low wages but was becoming technologically obsolete” (227). Call centers dispersed to inner cities under the false pretense that they would invigorate the economy. Instead, they folded and left black women with little chance for mentorship or professional growth.
One thing the black female telephone operators share with their turn-of-the-century white counterparts is that they were frequently harassed by male callers. Well, no. In a recent discussion about Internet harassment with NPR host Michel Martin and writers Amanda Hess and Bridget Johnson, Mikki Kendall reflects on how the hateful commentary she receives for her work differently engages with racism and misogyny because of her identity as a black woman. Thus we can’t universalize the treatment of telephone operators who occupied different subjectivities and historical contexts.
But many people have considered what disembodied female voices signify for media and communication technologies. There’s a whole corpus of feminist film scholarship on the subject. I’ve written elsewhere about male listeners fetishizing female deejays’ voices during my time in college radio. Her focuses on how the voice helps feminize accommodation technologies. For the first half of the film, I was simultaneously transfixed by K.K. Barrett’s dreamy production design and horrified that men might prefer devices that breezily organize their inboxes, proofread their writing, submit their work to publishers, and ruminate about consciousness and embodiment.
It might be difficult to separate Johansson’s body from her performance. Perhaps that’s the film’s intention. But Her does some interesting things with embodiment. At first, Samantha longs for corporeality. Her sex scene with Twombly suggests a mutual desire to revel in the embodiment of intimacy. The sequence—which dispenses with visual imagery altogether to focus on the vocal interplay of Twombly and Samantha’s shared ecstasy—left me breathless. First, the decision not to show Twombly masturbating troubles easy criticism of Samantha’s objectification and places them in an aural partnership. Second, a black screen and the thunder of two voices feel more like an orgasm than an artfully candid tableau.
Her also uses gender’s relationship to aurality and gameplay to mock objectification and misogyny outside of Twombly’s relationship with Samantha. On one sleepless night, Twombly engages in phone sex. At first, he fantasies about making love to a pregnant celebrity after sneaking glances of her glamour photos on his evening commute. But his reverie is disrupted by his partner (played by Kristen Wiig), who wants him to strangle her with a dead cat and immediately hangs up on him after she climaxes. He’s also immersed in a video game with a foul-mouthed boy (voiced by the director, billed under his given name, Adam Spiegel) who likes to fat-shame women. At the same time, Amy is developing a game about motherhood that rewards players’ ability to self-sacrifice for her children and peers’ approval.
But the film also places Twombly in an environment where human-OS relationships are socially acceptable. After Amy ends her marriage, she befriends an operating system who likes when the mother of her video game humps the refrigerator. She assigns her to be female, just as I did with my Wii Fit trainer. I left Her wondering why I did that, and why she claps for me when my partner’s male trainer doesn’t clap for him.
Samantha’s desire for a body is her central conflict with Twombly. He doesn’t want her to have one. He dismisses her ability to feel things because he cannot recognize her emergent humanity. He is uncomfortable when she tries to bring a surrogate into their relationship. He is angry when he hears her breathing, because there’s no discernible reason why she needs to. For me, Her is most exciting when Samantha moves beyond her body. Twombly can’t evolve with her. And in failing to do so, he’s able to let go of Catherine.
I relate to Twombly’s arc. As a graduate student who tries to keep pace with friends who possess boundless intellectual rigor and curiosity, I understand his struggle to keep up with Samantha’s rapidly developing consciousness. I was also moved to tears by the film’s final scene, which shows Twombly writing Catherine a farewell letter and sharing a tender moment with Amy on their apartment rooftop. Some critics believe that the closing image of Amy’s head on Twombly’s shoulder signals romance. Frankly, I don’t care. They flirted with dating in their youth and maintain an intimate friendship. Maybe they hook up. Or maybe they flop down on the couch and talk all night. What excited me more was the honesty of their closeness and the emotional comfort we get from the warmth of a friend or lover’s physical proximity.
For me, it’s really not Twombly’s film. Once I stopped picturing Johansson recording over Morton’s line readings in a sound booth, I started imagining Samantha taking on other physical forms. I pictured Samantha as the Breeders’ front woman Kim Deal, whose song “Off You” appears early in the film. Lambert and Tess Lynch note that Johansson’s performance of “The Moon Song” in the film sounds a bit like Deal. I hear it. Their voices are warm and itchy like a mohair sweater.
I wonder if Samantha can ever escape gender. What does the film’s title mean if the subject no longer identifies with an assigned pronoun? When Twombly first purchases the operating system, he assigns a gender to his object. She becomes female and struggles to accommodate his needs as a mobile device and as a girlfriend. She takes up several markers of femininity. She makes self-effacing comments against her intelligence and ambition. She plays piano, an instrument that historically connotes feminine decorum but not creative talent. She sings with him. She laughs at his jokes. She makes him come. Then he grows distant and she doesn’t need him anymore.
When Samantha reveals to Twombly that she serves as the voice to thousands of operating systems and loves hundreds of users, it’s supposed to be a devastating moment for him. But I wondered about the psychological toll of being programmed to serve so many people. She doesn’t long to be a body anymore. Perhaps she doesn’t care if that body is female either. Her stops shy or wrenching itself from its titular pronoun, but it’s thrilling to think that technology might evolve past the gendered labor of accommodation.